The climb always was going to be a tough one. The Pelicans can take some solace in having completed the first steps.
New Orleans will close a seven-game homestand Monday when the Memphis Grizzlies visit the Smoothie King Center at 7 p.m., and although the Pelicans remain on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture, things are looking up.
The Pelicans, who started the season 1-11, have won seven of nine, including five of the first six on this season-long homestand. New Orleans (18-28) finished January with an 8-6 record, its first winning month of the season.
“It’s progress,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “It is progress.”
There’s more to make.
The Pelicans entered Sunday night’s games three games behind the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot. New Orleans trailed ninth-place Utah by three games and 10th-place Sacramento by 1½.
But the Pelicans’ 7-3 record in their past 10 games equaled Portland’s entering Sunday for the best among those four contenders for the eighth seed.
“Obviously we started off the way we didn’t want to, but we’re getting in the groove,” point guard Jrue Holiday said. “From here we just have to stay consistent. For one, we’ve protected our house. For two, in this homestand we won more games than we lost. I guess you can’t really complain about that.”
Over the past 10 games, New Orleans ranks second in the NBA in offensive rating (111.7 points per 100 possessions, trailing only the Golden State Warriors) and 15th in defensive rating (104.9 points allowed per 100 possessions). That’s a significant improvement over the Pelicans’ season averages of 104.2 points scored and 106.2 points allowed per 100 possessions.
“They’re more comfortable in their skin right now,” said Houston Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff, whose team is one of three to beat the Pelicans in the past 10 games. “You can see that. They understand their schemes, I think, a little bit better. Defensively they’ve been much better.”
It has helped, Gentry said, that New Orleans has had “rotations that have been pretty stable” and “guys that have been healthy for the most part,” at least compared to early in the season.
The Pelicans have played the past two games without point guard Tyreke Evans (knee tendinitis) and the past five without shooting guard Eric Gordon, who is expected to miss four to six weeks with a fractured ring finger on his right hand.
But New Orleans is getting strong play from Holiday and Ryan Anderson. Guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, signed from the NBA Development League to a 10-day contract when Gordon was injured, has started the past two games and has been a solid contributor.
“We’re just playing hard,” forward Anthony Davis said. “We play hard, play with a lot of intensity. The good thing about it is that guys stepped up when guys went out, so their confidence is high. We can throw anybody in the game and they can perform for us.”
Still, the Pelicans know they face a steep climb.
After Monday, New Orleans will have more road games remaining (18) than home games (17). And though the Pelicans still have 19 games remaining against teams with .500 or worse records — an NBA most-tying 11 of them at home — they’re wrapping up one of the easiest schedule stretches of the season. This week, they’ll play road games at title contenders San Antonio and Cleveland.
“At the end of the day, we still know that we’re under a lot of pressure,” Gentry said. “We don’t have very much margin of error, and we have to try to win every game, especially every game (at home). We understand that, but not to the point that we’re putting this excessive pressure on ourselves. We just know that we have to play well and try to win as many games as we can.”
Lately, they’ve been stringing together wins, and that’s a start. But it’s only a start.
“We got to continue to do this on the road as well,” Davis said. “We’ve taken care of home, but it’s not enough. We still got a lot of ground to gain, and we’re just going to try to keep doing the same things that got us these wins.”